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Toward sincere beer

Drinking in a post-postmodern world, and why we need a better name for that.
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Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

From whence comes your beer, and does it matter to you? Does it affect how much you enjoy it?

For example: Maybe you hold in your hand a pitch-perfect, West Coast-style imperial IPA — except it was made in Belgium. Or you’re drinking a credible imitation of a Düsseldorf Altbier — except it was brewed in Vermont.

All beers come from somewhere. It’s just that many of the beers we drink today are not especially connected to their own somewheres.

When made with technical know-how—because today’s brewers can rebuild water chemistry, choose from a bewildering array of yeast strains, import all sorts of fresh ingredients, and adapt their process in seemingly infinite other ways — it seems that our beers could come from anywhere.

Consider an international beer firm like Mikkeller, which commissions a diverse range of products—many of them tasty, and virtually all technically excellent—from breweries in at least five countries. Maybe you’ve tasted the Mikkeller Texas Ranger, which is something like a chipotle chili porter, and thought something like, “Ah, so this is what Danish craft beer tastes like.” But it was brewed in Lochristi, Belgium.

I call this postmodern beer, because it reminds me of things I learned in philosophy classes that I thought I would never, ever apply to real life. Hooray college! Please hang in there as I try to walk that tricky line between not insulting your intelligence and boring the pants off, you know, everyone else.

Briefly: Postmodernism cuts across all sorts of subjects and disciplines, many of them cultural. Its victims include art, architecture, music, literature and yes, food. The common theme is a detachment from location, or reality, or truth. The sign is detached from that which is signified; the map is less interested in the actual territory.

Hence we drink Berliner Weisse—increasingly popular in the U.S.—which has little or nothing to do with Berlin. It was brewed not in Berlin, and likely not in a way that old Berliner brewers would recognize. But it might taste good.

Meanwhile, in Berlin: What do most upstart brewers appear most interested in making? American-hopped ales. And so on.

DSC_0473It wasn’t always like this—at least, not to this extent. I’ve only been drinking beer since the 1990s, but lately I’ve developed a fascination with beer books from the 1970s and ‘80s. They describe a simpler time, when each beer seemed to come from a place. People were just waking up to variety. That beer is clearly Belgian, that beer is clearly British, that beer is clearly German. The classic one is Michael Jackon’s World Guide to Beer—I bought a used copy cheap online, and so can you. This influential book not only tells us about the beers, but it shows us the places in which they are drunk, the streets outside the cafés, the countryside around the breweries.

That book and many others showed us foreign beers from foreign places, and it was fascinating. It was exotic. But what does “foreign beer” even mean these days, when Beck’s can be brewed in St. Louis and Green Flash can be brewed in Hainaut?

We can suppose that in simpler times, most brewers had little choice in this—their beers would have had a sense of place whether they liked it or not. Their water was their water, their yeast was their yeast, and the most practical ingredients would have been the nearest ones. These and other decisions would have added up to a certain house character.

These days, brewers have infinite choices, but what’s really interesting is that lately more of them appear to be choosing to pursue sense of place—they are trying to reconnect to their somewheres.

This is happening a lot with farmhouse ales, as brewers try to make more rustic old-fashioned beers, playing here and there with local microbiology.

DSC_0488

A few examples:

Hof ten Dormaal Saison in Tildonk, Belgium, is made in a real farm brewery using barley, wheat, spelt and hops that were all grown on the farm. An  overnight cereal mash makes the unmalted wheat and spelt easier for the yeast to digest, but it’s allowed to cool so that lactic bacteria can have their subtle say in the form of a light acidity.

 Jester King Le Petit Prince is a table beer of 2.9%, fermented with a half-wild yeast blend collected from the air near Austin, Texas.

 Bastogne Ardenne Saison, just south of the town of Bastogne, is first fermented with yeast from nearby Orval before getting a secondary dose of  brettanomyces strains said to be harvested from local apples.

There are many more, and by now you can probably name a few. This is sense of place not as an inevitability, but as a decision. A brewer can choose this  path for all sorts of reasons: for ethics, because of concerns about the environment or local culture; for marketing, because it makes a good story that  sells beer; or just for fun. Or all of the above.

As a drinker, my interests are hedonistic: I travel a lot, and if I think a beer says something about its home or its culture, I tend to enjoy it more. Beer is  about pleasure, after all; for me the context is part of it.

It should be no surprise that philosophers have tried to grapple with what comes next. I reckon courses called “Beyond Postmodernism” have been around as long as postmodernism itself. Showing that great academic sense of imagination, many of them call it “post-postmodernism.”

Yeah. We need a better name. But much of it shares a common theme: a return to reality. A return to place. A return to sincerity. Now: Do these beers represent sincere sincerity, or are they just fond imitations of simpler times?

I have no idea. But I look forward to tasting the attempts.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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4 Comments

  • Need a better name? That would be “metamodernism”, keep up!

  • […] let’s talk more about “sincere beer.” It sounds so nice — and it rhymes! — but what is it? How can we explain this thing so that […]

  • Joe Callender says:

    There are two opportunities I see for helping craft beer become more sincere.

    1. The paradigm of matching a beer to a new consumer needs to change. The current approach is the age-old approach of making a consumer fit a solution vs. recommending exactly what the consumer is looking for because you have gathered intimate details about his/her likes and dislikes. Most of the industry tends to talk about the beer style before the consumer’s interests and needs. Switch this up and we will have more sincere tasting experiences.

    2. Beer is still not as optimally as fresh as it could be. Grains sit on floors or shelves. Bottles and kegs sit in trucks or ships. Bottles and kegs sit on shelves at the distributor and then are delivered in unrefridgerated trucks…it was nearly 100 degrees here yesterday… Then bottles sit in stock rooms and on store shelves.

    I think the opportunity exists to move toward a hyper-local, “pub-culture-like” model where beer is brewed on premise and with styles targeted to local clientele preferences . It is brewed in a “just-in-time and quantity” fashion that is automated to encourage more attention to designing the beer to fit the ethos and menu of the particular establishment.

    I’m excited to report that the opportunity to make the latter happen is here. I was entering “retirement” from craft beer (blogging and writing as Craft Beer Coach) because there just was not anything innovative coming out to fix some of the gaps in the industry but there is something on the horizon that looks promising; or at the very least, worthy of testing the market. It’s simply a matter of finding the best market fit for it.

    I suspect I’ll be blogging about it soon enough and will reach out to media when the times comes.

  • Ben Coli says:

    Pre-modern beers had place built into them, because beer usually couldn’t be transported far.

    Modern beers epitomized placelessness; Budweiser was the same everywhere, and every beer everywhere approached Budweiser-ish-ness.

    The beginning of postmodernism in beers was an attempt to return to place in two ways – first, the beer was brewed locally, at your local brewpub. But there was no local style because Budweiser had obliterated the possibility of that for fifty years, So we looked around for the old beers from other places and tried to replicate them, and we named them after the places; Kolsch, Irish Stout, Pilsner.

    And then the thing that we can’t un-do happened: the beer travelled. Both the physical beer and the idea to brew the beer travelled. The genie is out of the bottle.

    The reason why people in Brabant drank witbier was because that’s what was locally produced and they knew it was delicious. They didn’t drink IPA because they’d never tasted it; all the IPA was over-hopped and in the belly of a boat bound for India, if I remember my 1990’s IPA label copy correctly. Now people in Brabant have tasted witbier and IPA and they want to drink both.

    And if someone produces a truly original beer that is a new local style, there are two possible outcomes: either it won’t be great, and it will die; Or it will be great and it will travel, and someone in Germany will brew an authentic Austin TX-style cowboy scrotum ale.

    And anyway, doing things like using local malt in regions that aren’t suited to barley cultivation and harvesting local yeast and local wild hops from roadside ditches might be cool and interesting and it might even produce great beer, but it’s still post-modern. It’s still a thing done insincerely, not out of necessity the way pre-modern production was done, but as a reference to the pre-modern ways of brewing locally. It’s still referential, in that you’re trying to do something from another time, in this case, instead of another place.

    The only escape from post-modernity is ignorance. You can only escape referentialism by being unaware that you’re not the first to do something.

    Postmodern brewing might cause you to wince internally at its cultural contradictions, but it’s not so bad. A lot of it tastes awesome.

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